Rethinking pro-choice rhetoric
Our Bodies, Our Souls: Naomi Wolf evaluates "Pro-Choice" strategy
October 16, 1995
The New Republic
NAOMI WOLF is the author of Fire
with Fire: The New, Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century
I had an abortion when I was a single mother and my daughter was 2 years
old. I would do it again. But you know the Greek myths when you kill a
relative you are pursued by furies? For months, it was as if baby furies
were pursuing me.
These are not the words of a benighted, superstition-ridden teenager lost
in America's cultural backwaters. They are the words of a Cornell-educated,
urban-dwelling Democratic-voting 40-year-old cardiologist. I'll call her
Clare. Clare is exactly the kind of person for whom being pro-choice is an
unshakeable conviction. If there were a core constituent of the movement to
secure abortion rights, Clare would be it. And yet: her words are exactly
the words to which the pro-choice movement is not listening.
At its best, feminism defends its moral high ground by being simply
faithful to the truth: to women's real-life experiences. But, to its own
ethical and political detriment, the pro-choice movement has relinquished
the moral frame around the issue of abortion. It has ceded the language of
right and wrong to abortion foes. The movement's abandonment of what
Americans have always, and rightly demanded of their movements -- an ethical
core -- and its reliance instead on a political rhetoric in which the fetus
means nothing are proving fatal.
The effects of this abandonment can be measured in two ways. First of
all, such a position causes us to lose political ground. By refusing to look
at abortion within a moral framework, we lose the millions of Americans who
want to support abortion as a legal right but still need to condemn it as a
moral iniquity. Their ethical allegiances are then addressed by the pro-life
movement, which is willing to speak about good and evil.
But we are also in danger of losing something more important than votes;
we stand in jeopardy of losing what can only be called our souls. Clinging
to a rhetoric about abortion in which there is no life and no death, we
entangle our beliefs in a series of self-delusions, fibs and evasions. And
we risk becoming precisely what our critics charge us with being: callous,
selfish and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of
In the following pages, I will argue for a radical shift in the
pro-choice movement's rhetoric and consciousness about abortion: I still
maintain that we need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights
within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real
death; that there are degrees of culpability, judgement and responsibility
involved in the decision to abort a pregnancy; that the best understanding
of feminism involves holding women as well as men to the responsibilities
that are inseparable from their rights and that we need to be strong enough
to acknowledge that this country's high rate of abortion -- which ends more
than a quarter of all pregnancies -- can only be rightly understood as what
Dr. Henry Foster was brave enough to call it: "a failure."
Any doubt that our current pro-choice rhetoric leads to disaster should
be dispelled by the famous recent defection of the woman who had been Jane
Roe. What happened to Norma McCorvey? To judge by her characterization in
the elite media and by some prominent pro-choice feminists, nothing very
important. Her change of heart about abortion was relentlessly "explained
away" as having everything to do with the girlish motivations of insecurity,
fickleness and the need for attention, and little to do with any actual
This dismissive (and, not incidentally, sexist and classist)
interpretation was so highly colored by subjective impressions offered up by
the very institutions that define objectivity that it bore all the hallmarks
of an exculpatory cultural myth: poor Norma -- she just needed stroking. She
was never very stable. The old dear -- first she was a chesspiece for the
pro-choice movement ("just, some anonymous person who suddenly emerges," in
the words of one NOW member) and then a codependent of the Bible-thumpers.
Low self-esteem, a history of substance abuse, ignorance--these and other
personal weaknesses explained her turnaround.
To me, the first commandment of real feminism is: when in doubt, listen
to women. What if we were to truly respectfully listen to this woman who
began her political life as, in her words, just "some little old Texas girl
who got in trouble." We would have to hear this: perhaps Norma McCorvey
actually had a revelation that she could no longer live as the symbol of a
belief system she increasingly repudiated.
Norma McCorvey should be seen as an object lesson for the pro-choice
movement -- a call to us to search our souls and take another, humbler look
at how we go about what we are doing. For McCorvey is in fact an American
Everywoman: she is the lost middle of the abortion debate, the woman whose
allegiance we forfeit by our refusal to use a darker and sterner and more
honest moral rhetoric.
McCorvey is more astute than her critics; she seems to understand better
than the pro-choice activists she worked with just what the
woman-in-the-middle believes: "I believe in the woman's right to choose. I'm
like a lot of people. I'm in the mushy middle," she said. McCorvey still
supports abortion rights through the first trimester -- but is horrified by
the brutality of abortion as it manifests more obviously further into a
pregnancy. She does not respect the black and white ideology on either side
and insists on referring instead, as I understand her explanation, to her
conscience. What McCorvey and other Americans want and deserve is an
abortion-rights movement willing publicly to mourn the evil -- necessary
evil though it may be -- that is abortion. We must have a movement that acts
with moral accountability and without euphemism.
With the pro-choice rhetoric we use now, we incur three destructive
consequences -- two ethical, one strategic: hardness of heart, lying and
Because of the implications of a Constitution that defines rights
according to the legal idea of "a person," the abortion debate has tended to
focus on the question of "personhood" of the fetus. Many pro-choice
advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn't a person, and
this, over the years has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization. Laura
Kaplan's The Story of Jane, an important forthcoming account of a
pre-Roe underground abortion service, inadvertently sheds light on the
origins of some of this rhetoric: service staffers referred to the fetus
--well into the fourth month -- as "material" (as in "the amount of material
that had to be removed... "). The activists felt exhilaration at learning to
perform abortions themselves instead of relying on male doctors: "When [a
staffer] removed the speculum and said, 'There, all done,' the room exploded
in excitement." In an era when women were dying of illegal abortions, this
was the understandable exhilaration of an underground resistance movement.
Unfortunately, though, this cool and congratulatory rhetoric lingers into
a very different present. In one woman's account of her chemical abortion,
in the January/February 1994 issue of Mother Jones, for example,
the doctor says, "By Sunday you won't see on the monitor what we call
the heartbeat (my italics). The author of the article, D. Redman,
explains that one of the drugs the doctor administered would "end the growth
of the fetal tissue." And we all remember Dr. Joycelyn Elders's remark,
hailed by some as refreshingly frank and pro-woman but which I found
remarkably brutal: that "We really need to get over this love affair with
the fetus.... "
How did we arrive at this point? In the early 1970s, Second Wave feminism
adopted this rhetoric in response to the reigning ideology in which
motherhood was invoked as an excuse to deny women legal and social equality.
In a climate in which women risked being defined as mere vessels while their
fetuses were given "personhood" at their expense, it made sense that women's
advocates would fight back by depersonalizing the fetus.
The feminist complaint about the pro-life movement's dehumanization of
the pregnant woman in relation to the humanized fetus is familiar and often
quite valid: pro-choice commentators note that the pro-life film The
Silent Scream portrayed the woman as "a vessel": Ellen Frankfort's
Vaginal Politics, the influential feminist text, complained that the
fetus is treated like an astronaut in a spaceship.
But, say what you will, pregnancy confounds Western philosophy's idea of
the autonomous self: the pregnant woman is in fact both a person in her body
and a vessel. Rather than seeing both beings as alive and interdependent --
seeing life within life -- and acknowledging that sometimes, nonetheless,
the woman must choose her life over the fetus's, Second Wave feminists
reacted to the dehumanization on of women by dehumanizing the creatures
within them. In the death-struggle to wrest what Simone de Beauvoir called
transcendence out of biological immanence, some feminists developed a
rhetoric that defined the unwanted fetus as at best valueless: at worst an
adversary, a "mass of dependent protoplasm."
Yet that has left us with a bitter legacy. For when we defend abortion
rights by emptying the act of moral gravity, we find ourselves cultivating a
hardness of heart.
Having become pregnant through her partner's and her own failure to use a
condom, Redman remarks that her friend Judith, who has been trying to find a
child to adopt, begs her to carry the pregnancy to term. Judith offers
Redman almost every condition a birth-mother could want: "'Let me have the
baby,' " she quotes her friend pleading. "'You could visit her anytime, and
if you ever wanted her back, I promise I would let her go.'" Redman does not
mention considering this possibility. Thinking, rather, about the difficulty
of keeping the child -- "My time consumed by the tedious, daily activities
that I've always done my best to avoid. Three meals a day. Unwashed
laundry..." she schedules her chemical abortion.
The procedure is experimental, and the author feels "almost heroic",
thinking of how she is blazing a trail for other women. After the abortion
process is underway the story reaches its perverse epiphany: Redman is on a
Women's Day march when the blood from the abortion first appears. She exults
at this: "'Our bodies. Our lives our right to decide.' ... My life feels
luxuriant with possibility For one precious moment, I believe that we have
the power to dismantle this system. I finish the march, borne along by the
women...." As for the pleading Judith, with everything she was ready to
offer a child, and the phantom baby? They are both off-stage, silent in this
chilling drama of "Feminist" triumphalism.
And why should we expect otherwise? In this essay, the fetus (as the
author writes, "the now-inert material from my womb") is little more than a
form of speech: a vehicle to assert the author's identity and autonomy.
The pro-life warning about the potential of widespread abortion to
degrade reverence for life does have a nugget of truth: a free-market
rhetoric about abortion can, indeed, contribute to the eerie situation we
are now facing, wherein the culture seems increasingly to see babies not as
creatures to whom parents devote their lives but as accoutrements to enhance
parental quality of life. Day by day, babies seem to have less value in
themselves, in a matrix of the sacred, than they do as products with a value
dictated by a market economy.
Stories surface regularly about "worthless" babies left naked on gratings
or casually dropped out of windows, while "valuable," genetically correct
babies are created at vast expense and with intricate medical assistance for
infertile couples. If we fail to treat abortion with grief and reverence, we
risk forgetting that, when it comes to the children we choose to bear, we
are here to serve them -- whomever they are; they are not here to serve us.
Too often our rhetoric leads us to tell untruths. What Norma McCorvey
wants, it seems, is for abortion-rights advocates to face, really face, what
we are doing: "Have you ever seen a second-trimester abortion?" she asks.
"It's a baby. It's got a face and a body, and they put him in a freezer and
a little container."
Well, so it does: and so they do.
The pro-choice movement often treats with contempt the pro-lifers'
practice of holding up to our faces their disturbing graphics. We revile
their placards showing an enlarged scene of the aftermath of a D & C
abortion: we are disgusted by their lapel pins with the little feet, crafted
in gold, of a 10-week-old fetus; we mock the sensationalism of The
Silent Scream. We look with pity and horror at someone who would
brandish a fetus in formaldehyde -- and we are quick to say that they are
lying: "Those are stillbirths, anyway" we tell ourselves.
To many pro-choice advocates, the imagery is revolting propaganda. There
is a sense among us, let us be frank, that the gruesomeness of the imagery
belongs to the pro-lifers: that it emerges from the dark, frightening
minds of fanatics: that it represents the violence of imaginations that
would, given half a chance, turn our world into a scary, repressive place.
'People like us' see such material as the pornography of the pro-life
But feminism at its best is based on what is simply true. While
pro-lifers have not been beyond dishonesty, distortion and the doctoring of
images (preferring, for example, to highlight the results of very late, very
rare abortions), many of those photographs are in fact photographs of actual
D & Cs; those footprints are in fact the footprints of a 10-week-old fetus,
the pro-life slogan, "Abortion stops a beating heart," is incontrovertibly
true. While images of violent fetal death work magnificently for pro-lifers
as political polemic, the pictures are not polemical in themselves: they are
biological facts. We know this.
Since abortion became legal nearly a quarter-century ago, the fields of
embryology and perinatology have been revolutionized -- but the pro-choice
view of the contested fetus has remained static. This has led to a bizarre
bifurcation in the way we who are pro-choice tend to think about wanted as
opposed to unwanted fetuses: the unwanted ones are still seen in schematic
black-and-white drawings while the wanted ones have metamorphosed into vivid
and moving color. Even while Elders spoke of our need to "get over" our love
affair with the unwelcome fetus, an entire growth industry -- Mozart for
your belly; framed sonogram photos; home fetal-heartbeat stethoscopes -- is
devoted to sparking fetal love affairs in other circumstances, and aimed
especially at the hearts of over-scheduled yuppies. If we avidly cultivate
love for the ones we bring to term, and "get over" our love for the ones we
don't, do we not risk developing a hydroponic view of babies -- and turn
them into a product we can cull for our convenience?
Any happy couple with a wanted pregnancy and a copy of What to Expect
When You're Expecting can see the cute, detailed drawings of the fetus
whom the book's owner presumably is not going to abort, and can read the
excited descriptions of what that fetus can do and feel, month by month.
Anyone who has had a sonogram during pregnancy knows perfectly well that the
4-month-old fetus responds to outside stimulus--"Let's get him to look this
way," the technician will say, poking gently at the belly of a delighted
mother-to-be. The Well Baby Book, the kind of whole-grain holistic guide to
pregnancy and childbirth that would find its audience among the very
demographic that is most solidly pro-choice reminds us that: "Increasing
knowledge is increasing the awe and respect we have for the unborn baby and
is causing us to regard the unborn baby as a real person long before
So, what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex REM-dreaming
little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but
unwanted ones are mere "uterine material"? How can we charge that it is vile
and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the
images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very
height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the
matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be
confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too
inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave
decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be
strong women, too: and strong women, presumably do not seek to cloak their
most important decisions in euphemism.
Other lies are not lies to others, but to ourselves. An abortion-clinic
doctor. Elizabeth Karlin, who wrote a recent "Hers" column in The New
York Times, declared that "There is only one reason I've ever heard for
having an abortion: the desire to be a good mother."
While that may well be true for many poor and working-class women -- and
indeed research shows that poor women are three times more likely to have
abortions than are better-off women -- the elite, who are the most
vociferous in their morally unambiguous pro-choice language, should know
perfectly well how untrue that statement often is in their own lives. All
abortions occupy a spectrum, from full lack of alternatives to full moral
accountability. Karlin and many other pro-choice activists try to situate
all women equally at the extreme endpoint of that spectrum, and it just
isn't so. Many women, including middle-class women, do have abortions
because, as one such woman put it, "They have a notion of what a good mother
is and don't feel they can be that kind of mother at this phase of their
lives." In many cases, that is still a morally defensible place on the
spectrum; but it is not the place of absolute absolution that Dr. Karlin
claims it to be. It is, rather, a place of moral struggle, of self-interest
mixed with selflessness, of wished-for good intermingled with necessary
Other abortions occupy places on the spectrum that are far more culpable.
Of the abortions I know of, these were some of the reasons: to find out if
the woman could get pregnant; to force a boy or man to take a relationship
more seriously; and, again and again, to enact a rite of passage for
affluent teenage girls. In my high school, the abortion drama was used to
test a boyfriend's character. Seeing if he would accompany the girl to the
operation or, better yet, come up with the money for the abortion could
almost have been the 1970s Bay Area equivalent of the '50s fraternity pin.
The affluent teenage couples who conceive because they can and then erase
the consequences -- and the affluent men and women who choose abortion
because they were careless or in a hurry or didn't like the feel of latex --
are not the moral equivalent of the impoverished mother who responsibly,
even selflessly, acknowledge she already has too many mouths to feed.
Feminist rights include feminist responsibilities: the right to obtain an
abortion brings with it the responsibility to contracept. Fifty-seven
percent of unintended pregnancies come about because the parents used no
contraception at all. Those millions certainly include women and men too
poor to buy contraception, girls and boys too young and ill-informed to know
where to get it, and countless instances of marital rape, coerced sex,
incest and couplings in which the man refused to let the woman use
But they also include millions of college students, professional men and
women, and middle- and uppermiddle- class people (11 percent of abortions
are obtained by people in households with incomes of higher than $50,000) --
who have no excuse whatsoever for their carelessness. "There is only one
reason I've ever heard for having an abortion: the desire to be a good
mother" -- this is a falsehood that condescends to women struggling to be
true agents of their own souls, even as it dishonors through hypocrisy the
terminations that are the writer's subject.
Not to judge other men and women without judging myself, I know this
assertion to be false from my own experience. Once, I made the choice to
take a morning after pill. The heavily pregnant doctor looked at me, as she
dispensed it, as if I were the scum of the earth.
If what was going on in my mind had been mostly about the well-being of
the possible baby, that pill would never have been swallowed. For that
potential baby, brought to term, would have had two sets of loving
middle-income grandparents, an adult mother with an education and even, as I
discovered later, the beginning of diaper money for its first two years of
life (the graduate fellowship I was on forbade marriage but, frozen in time
before women were its beneficiaries, said nothing about unwed motherhood).
Because of the baby's skin color, even if I chose not to rear the child, a
roster of eager adoptive parents awaited him or her. If I had been thinking
only or even primarily about the baby's life, I would have had to decide to
bring the pregnancy, had there been one, to term.
No: there were two columns in my mind -- "Me" and "Baby " -- and the
first won out. And what was in it looked something like this: unwelcome
intensity in the relationship with the father; desire to continue to
"develop as a person" before "real" parenthood; wish to encounter my
eventual life partner without the off-putting encumbrance of a child;
resistance to curtailing the nature of the time remaining to me in Europe.
Essentially, this column came down to: I am not done being responsive only
to myself yet.
At even the possibility that the cosmos was calling my name, I cowered
and stepped aside. I was not so unlike those young louts who father children
and run from the specter of responsibility. Except that my refusal to be
involved with this potential creature was as definitive as a refusal can be.
Stepping aside in this way is analogous to draft evasion: there are good
and altruistic reasons to evade the draft, and then there are
self-preserving reasons. In that moment, feminism came to one of its logical
if less-than-inspiring moments of fruition: I chose to sidestep biology: I
acted -- and was free to act -- as if I were in control of my destiny, the
way men more often than women have let themselves act. I chose myself on my
own terms over a possible someone else, for self-absorbed reasons. But "to
be a better mother"; "Dulce et decorum est..."? Nonsense.
Now, freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose
selfishly. Certainly for a woman with fewer economic and social choices than
I had -- for instance, a woman struggling to finish her higher education,
without which she would have little hope of a life worthy of her talents --
there can indeed be an obligation to choose self. And the defense
of some level of abortion rights as fundamental to women's integrity and
equality has been made fully by others, including, quite effectively Ruth
Bader Ginsberg. There is no easy way to deny the powerful argument that a
woman's equality in society must give her some irreducible rights unique to
her biology including the right to take the life within her life.
But we don't have to lie to ourselves about what we are doing at such a
moment. Let us at least look with clarity at what that means and not
whitewash self-interest with the language of self-sacrifice. The landscape
of many such decisions looks more like Marin County than Verdun. Let us
certainly not be fools enough to present such spiritually limited moments to
the world with a flourish of pride, pretending that we are somehow pioneers
and heroines and even martyrs to have snatched the self, with its aims and
pleasures, from the pressure of biology.
That decision was not my finest moment. The least I can do, in honor of
the being that might have been, is simply to know that.
Using amoral rhetoric, we weaken ourselves politically because we lose
the center. To draw an inexact parallel, many people support the choice to
limit the medical prolongation of life. But, if a movement arose that spoke
of our "getting over our love affair" with the terminally ill, those same
people would recoil into a vociferous interventionist position as a way to
assert their moral values. We would be impoverished by a rhetoric about the
end of life that speaks of the ill and the dying as if they were meaningless
and of doing away with them as if it were a bracing demonstration of our
Similarly, many people support necessary acts of warfare (Catholics for a
Free Choice makes the analogy between abortion rights and such warfare).
There are legal mechanisms that allow us to bring into the world the evil of
war. But imagine how quickly public opinion would turn against a president
who waged war while asserting that our sons and daughters were nothing but
cannon fodder. Grief and respect are the proper tones for all discussions
about choosing to endanger or destroy a manifestation of life.
War is legal: it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in
peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal;
it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide
that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or
necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice
incurred in letting them go. Only if we uphold abortion rights within a
matrix of individual conscience, atonement and responsibility can we both
correct the logical and ethical absurdity in our position and consolidate
the support of the center.
Many others, of course, have wrestled with this issue: Camille Paglia,
who has criticized the "convoluted casuistry" of some pro-choice language;
Roger Rosenblatt, who has urged us to permit but discourage abortion;
Laurence Tribe, who has noted that we place the fetus in shadow in order to
advance the pro-choice argument. But we have yet to make room for this
conversation at the table of mainstream feminism.
And we can't wait much longer. Historical changes from the imminent
availability of cheap chemical abortifacients to the ascendancy of the
religious right to Norma McCorvey's defection -- make the need for a new
abortion-rights language all the more pressing
In a time of retrenchment, how can I be so sure that a more honest and
moral rhetoric about abortion will consolidate rather than scuttle abortion
rights? Look at what Americans themselves say. When a recent Newsweek
poll asked about support for abortion using the rare phrasing, "It's a
matter between a woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience and her God,"
a remarkable 72 percent of the respondents called that formulation "about
right." This represents a gain of thirty points over the abortion rights
support registered in the latest Gallup poll, which asked about abortion
without using the words "God" or "conscience." When participants in the
Gallup poll were asked if they supported abortion "under any circumstances"
only 32 percent agreed; only 9 percent more supported it under "most"
circumstances. Clearly, abortion rights are safest when we are willing to
submit them to a morality beyond just our bodies and our selves.
But how, one might ask, can I square a recognition of the humanity of the
fetus, and the moral gravity of destroying it, with a pro-choice position?
The answer can only be found in the context of a paradigm abandoned by the
left and misused by the right: the paradigm of sin and redemption.
It was when I was four months pregnant, sick as a dog, and in the middle
of an argument, that I realized I could no longer tolerate the
fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement. I was being
interrogated by a conservative, and the subject of abortion rights came up.
"You're four months pregnant," he said. "Are you going to tell me that's not
a baby you're carrying?"
The accepted pro-choice response at such a moment in the conversation is
to evade: to move as swiftly as possible to a discussion of "privacy" and
"difficult personal decisions" and "choice." Had I not been so nauseated and
so cranky and so weighed down with the physical gravity of what was going on
inside me, I might not have told what is the truth for me. "Of course it's a
baby," I snapped. And went rashly on: "And if I found myself in
circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life,
then that would be between myself and God."
Startlingly to me, two things happened: the conservative was quiet, I had
said something that actually made sense to him. And I felt the great relief
that is the grace of long-delayed honesty.
Now, the G-word is certainly a problematic element to introduce into the
debate. And yet "God' or "soul"--or, if you are secular and prefer it,
"conscience" -- is precisely what is missing from pro-choice discourse.
There is a crucial difference between "myself and my God" or "my conscience"
-- terms that imply moral accountability -- and "myself and my doctor," the
phrasing that Justice Harry Blackmun's wording in Roe ("inherently, and
primarily, a medical decision") has tended to promote in the pro-choice
movement. And that's not ever, to mention "between myself and myself"
(Elders: "It's not anybody's business if I went for an abortion"), which
implies just the relativistic relationship to abortion that our critics
accuse us of sustaining.
The language we use to make our case limits the way we let ourselves
think about abortion. As a result of the precedents in Roe (including
Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird), which based
a woman's right to an abortion on the Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments'
implied right to personal privacy, other unhelpful terms are also current in
our discourse. Pro-choice advocates tend to cast an abortion as "an
intensely personal decision." To which we can say, No: one's choice of
carpeting is an intensely personal decision. One's struggles with a
life-and-death issue must be understood as a matter of personal conscience.
There is a world of difference between the two, and it's the difference a
moral frame makes.
Stephen L. Carter has pointed out that spiritual discussion has been
robbed of a place in American public life. As a consequence we tend -- often
disastrously -- to use legislation to work out right and wrong. That puts
many in the position of having to advocate against abortion rights in order
to proclaim their conviction that our high rate of avoidable abortion (one
of the highest in developed countries, five times that of the Netherlands,
for example) is a social evil: and, conversely, many must pretend that
abortion is not a transgression of any kind if we wish to champion abortion
rights. We have no ground on which to say that abortion is a necessary evil
that should be faced and opposed in the realm of conscience and action and
even soul; yet remain legal.
But American society is struggling to find its way forward to a discourse
of right and wrong that binds together a common ethic for the secular and
the religious. When we do that, we create a moral discourse that can exist
in its own right independent of legislation, and we can find ground to stand
Norma McCorvey explained what happened to her in terms of good and evil:
she woke in the middle of the night and felt a presence pushing violently
down on her. "I denounce you, Satan," she announced. This way of talking
about evil is one of the chief class-divisions in America: working-class
people talk about Satan, and those whom Paul Fussell calls "the X group" --
those who run the country -- talk instead about neurotic guilt. While the
elite scoff at research that shows that most Americans maintain a belief in
the embodiment of evil -- "the devil" -- they miss something profound about
the human need to make moral order out of chaos. After all, the only
difference between the experience described by Clare the Cornell-educated
pro-choicer, and McCorvey, the uneducated ex-alcoholic, is a classical
There is a hunger for a moral framework that we pro-choicers must reckon
with. In the Karlin "Hers" column, the author announced proudly that
pregnant women are asked by the counselor in the office, "So, how long, have
you been prochoice?" Dr. Karlin writes that "Laughter and the answer, 'About
ten minutes,' is the healthiest response. 'I still don't believe in
abortion,' some women say, unaware that refusal to take responsibility for
the decision means that I won't do the procedure."
How is this "feminist" ideological coercion any different from the worst
of pro-life shaming and coercion? The women who come to a clinic that is
truly feminist -- that respects women -- are entitled not only to their
abortions but also to their sense of sin.
To use the term "sin" in this context does not necessarily mean, as Dr.
Karlin believes, that a woman thinks she must go to hell because she is
having an abortion. It may mean that she thinks she must face the
realization that she has fallen short of who she should be; and that she
needs to ask forgiveness for that, and atone for it. As I understand such a
woman's response, she is trying to take responsibility for the decision.
We on the left tend to twitch with discomfort at that word "sin." Too
often we have become religiously illiterate, and so we deeply misunderstand
the word. But in all of the great religious traditions, our recognition of
sin, and then our atonement for it, brings on God's compassion and our
redemption. In many faiths, justice is linked, as it is in medieval Judaism
and in Buddhism, to compassion. From Yom Kippur and the Ash
Wednesday-to-Easter cycle to the Hindu idea of karma, the individual's
confrontation with her or his own culpability is the first step toward ways
to create and receive more light.
How could one live with a conscious view that abortion is an evil and
still be pro-choice? Through acts of redemption, or what the Jewish mystical
tradition calls tikkun or "mending." Laurence Tribe, in
Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, notes that "Memorial services for the
souls of aborted fetuses are fairly common in contemporary Japan" where
abortions are both legal and readily available. Shinto doctrine holds that
women should make offerings to the fetus to help it rest in peace; Buddhists
once erected statues of the spirit guardian of children to honor aborted
fetuses (called "water children" or "unseeing children"). If one believes
that abortion is killing and yet is still pro-choice, one could try to use
contraception for every single sex act; if one had to undergo an abortion,
one could then work to provide contraception, or jobs, or other choices to
young girls; one could give money to programs that provide prenatal care to
poor women, if one is a mother or father, one can remember the aborted child
every time one is tempted to be less than loving -- and give renewed love to
the living child. And so on: tikkun.
But when you insist, as the "Hers" column writer did, on stripping people
of their sense of sin, they react with a wholesale backing-away into a rigid
morality that reimposes order: hence, the ascendancy of the religious right.
Just look at the ill-fated nomination of Dr. Henry Foster for Surgeon
General. The Republicans said "abortion," and the discussion was over. The
Democrats, had they worked out a moral framework for progressivism, could
have responded: "Yes, our abortion rate is a terrible social evil. Here is a
man who can help put a moral framework around the chaos of a million and a
half abortions a year. He can bring that rate of evil down. And whichever
senator among you has ever prevented an unplanned pregnancy -- and Dr.
Foster has -- let him ask the first question."
Who gets blamed for our abortion rate? The ancient Hebrews had a ritual
of sending a "scapegoat" into the desert with the community sins projected
upon it. Abortion doctors are our contemporary scapegoats. The pro-lifers
obviously scapegoat them in one way: if pro-lifers did to women what they do
to abortion doctors -- harassed and targeted them in their homes and
workplaces -- public opinion would rapidly turn against them: for the
movement would soon find itself harassing the teachers and waitresses,
housewives and younger sisters of their own communities. The pro-life
movement would have to address the often all-too-pressing good reasons that
lead good people to abort. That would be intolerable, a tactical defeat for
the pro-life movement, and as sure to lose it "the mushy middle" as the
pro-choice movement's tendency toward rhetorical coldness loses it the same
But pro-choicers, too, scapegoat the doctors and clinic workers. By
resisting a moral framework in which to view abortion we who are
pro-abortion-rights leave the doctors in the front lines, with blood on
their hands: the blood of the repeat abortions -- at least 43 percent of the
total; the suburban summer country-club rite-of-passage abortions; the "I
don't know what came over me, It was such good Chardonnay" abortions; as
well as the blood of the desperate and the unpreventable and accidental and
the medically necessary and the violently
conceived abortions. This is blood that the doctors and clinic workers often
see clearly, and that they heroically rinse and cause to flow and rinse
again And they rake all our sins, the pro-choice as well as the pro-life
among us upon themselves.
And we who are pro-choice compound their isolation by declaring that that
blood is not there.
As the world changes and women, however incrementally, become more free
and more powerful, the language in which we phrase the goals of feminism
must change as well. As a result of the bad old days before the Second Wave
of feminism, we tend to understand abortion as a desperately needed exit
from near-total male control of our reproductive lives. This scenario posits
an unambiguous chain of power and powerlessness in which men control women
and women, in order to survive, must have unquestioned control over fetuses.
It is this worldview, all too real in its initial conceptualization, that
has led to the dread among many pro-choice women of departing from a model
of woman-equals-human-life, fetus-equals-not-much.
This model of reality may have been necessary in an unrelenting
patriarchy. But today, in what should be, as women continue to consolidate
political power, a patriarchy crumbling in spite of itself, it can become
Now: try to imagine real gender equality. Actually try to imagine an
America that is female-dominated. Since a true working democracy in this
country would reflect our 54-46 voting advantage.
Now imagine such a democracy, in which women would be valued so very
highly as a world that is accepting and responsible about human sexuality;
in which there is no coerced sex without serious jailtime: in which there
are affordable, safe contraceptives available for the taking in every public
health building; in which there is economic parity for women -- and basic
economic subsistence for every baby born; and in which every young American
woman knows about and understands her natural desire as a treasure to
cherish, and responsibly, when the time is right, on her own terms, to
In such a world, in which the idea of gender as a barrier has become a
dusty artifact, we would probably use a very different language about what
would be -- then -- the rare and doubtless traumatic event of abortion. That
language would probably call upon respect and responsibility, grief and
mourning. In that world we might well describe the unborn and the
never-to-be-born with the honest words of life.
And in that world, passionate feminists might well hold candlelight
vigils at abortion clinics, standing shoulder to shoulder with the doctors
who work there, commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead.